“They sow the wind, And reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no bud; It shall never produce meal. If it should produce, Aliens would swallow it up.
~ Hosea 8:7 KJV
by Louis Putterman edited by O Society March 20, 2020
Thomas Piketty’s dry academic tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, reached the top of the NY Times bestseller list in 2014. New Yorker Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic Socialist, defeated a high-ranking Democratic incumbent to win the nomination for a seat in Congress in 2018. Self-described “socialist” Bernie Sanders gave Joe Biden a run for his money in the 2020 presidential primaries.
Meanwhile, both ultra-rich and working class rubes follow Donald Trump and remain enthusiastic despite ballooning budget deficits, costlier health care, and massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Is open class warfare part of our future?
Historian sees death and destruction as the effective levelers.
Among the many books to appear in this increasingly fraught environment is The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality, by Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel. He argues war, revolution, state collapse, and plague may be about the only things to ever substantially reduce inequality of wealth and income in the five thousand years since people started forming agrarian civilizations and living under kingdoms, empires, and states.
His research finds inequality always makes a rapid comeback once the catastrophes that level it recede. Inequality effectively dropped in the U.S. and other western countries in the wake of the Great Depression and two world wars, but its return to high levels during the past two decades confirms this general premise.
Is this pattern telling us anything about human nature or psychology?
Having at first resisted picking up Scheidel’s book because its title struck me as both gloomy and sensationalist, upon reading it I found it reassuringly measured and thoughtful. Scheidel reserves whole chapters toward the book’s end for discussion of reformist alternatives to the grim apocalyptic levelers of mass mobilization warfare, revolution, plague, and state collapse.
He allows for the roles mass education and political democracy play in the 20th century. He in no way denies the standard facts of lowered inequality in western European welfare states of the post-World War II era, but he emphasizes much of the equalization is achieved by tax and transfer programs as opposed to equalization of market earnings. He also discusses factors might render their outcomes unsustainable, mere short-lived exceptions, over the historical long run.
Perhaps the rich once offered a bit of equalization to stave off revolution and to pay back a generation or two who mobilized for warfare on a massive scale, but such temporary dips in inequality have no lasting staying power over the long sweep of history.
The evidence Scheidel presents suggests anatomically and behaviorally modern humans of the tens of millennia preceding settled agriculture and herding may have more egalitarian social structures than most of their Great Ape cousins.
This observation is attributed by many to both the highly cooperative nature of human foraging strategies and to the development of motor skills and tools to make most humans about equally capable of violently maiming or killing one another. Thus psychological and cultural dispositions towards equality advantageous to group and individual survival.
Most hunter-gatherers who survive into the 20th century, and perhaps most of our ancestors, show a penchant for equality quite remarkable among large African primates. Attraction to equality seems to remain buried in the human psyche, as suggested by the cultural successes of movements like Christianity (over the last two millennia, preaching an at-least-hypothetically pro-poor and human universalist faith) and political democracy (more recently).
But the original cultures of equality broke down in societies generating surpluses that could be appropriated by elites who innovated clever justifications for their status (i.e., as protectors from still worse external marauders, as mediators with the supernatural, etc.) and could threaten sufficient violence against any challengers. One force allowing personal command over larger caches of resources, emphasized by Scheidel, is the incorporation of larger swaths of territory under the control of larger states as expanding empires absorbed smaller polities.
The success of such empires in expanding the reach of trade and the rents from monopolies over valued resources like salt, copper, or silk also made possible the amassing of fortunes by private actors who had favored relations with the state. In later times such private actors (e.g., bankers in Genoa) could even wield power over states themselves, as crucial financial backers of their military escapades.
One of the more depressing historical levelers of inequality, one that is increasingly familiar to economic historians but perhaps not to the general public, were the waves of the bubonic and other plagues that decimated the populations of the cities of late medieval Europe.
There’s general agreement the dramatic declines in population brought about by the worst plague outbreaks (such as the loss of up to 60 percent of London’s population in the 1340s and ‘50s) caused a dramatic increase in the scarcity of labor that greatly improved workers’ bargaining power and led to substantial (if temporary) increases in wage rates and worker living standards. Interestingly, labor scarcity had much less impact on wages in most of eastern Europe where the upper classes were more successful at repressing market pressures by punishing those who broke with the promulgated pre-plague wage norms.
Several economic historians have argued the upticks in the cost of labor in countries like England and the Netherlands helped hasten the Industrial Revolution by increasing employers’ incentives to invest in labor-saving devices, eventually culminating in the power-harnessing methods and equipment associated with the Industrial Revolution.*
Less drastic plague-caused population declines in China could be one factor helping to explain why the Industrial Revolution took place in England rather than China, leading to the “great divergence” of income levels between West and East during the late 18th to mid-20th century.
Whether organized but non-violent confrontation between rich and poor has ever succeeded in changing the distribution of income is a tricky question to answer due to the difficulty of judging whether key reformers are to be counted as representative of, or at least responding to, the poor. Certainly Bismarck, whose reforms some consider the forerunner of the European welfare state, and FDR, who led much of the construction of the U.S. welfare state, were not working class leaders but rather “enlightened elite” figures who judged such efforts to be prudent means of staving off a more radical upheaval. Social Democratic politicians allied with union leaders in countries like Sweden fit relatively well the notion of representatives of working families themselves pressing for and achieving more favorable distributive outcomes on their constituents’ behalf.
As for leveling via violence, Scheidel considers in some detail the revolutions in Russia, China and other countries in which Communists assumed power determined to fully expropriate propertied classes and prepared to put to death enough of the rich to terrorize potential resisters.
As the famous quotation of Mao Zedong put it: “A revolution is not a dinner party … A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” Scheidel’s treatment of these cases emphasizes that far more radical reductions of inequality of wealth were achieved in less violent cases of reform, and that the price paid in human life and liberty was a heavy one.
Prices were also paid in the form of reduced economic efficiency and technological dynamism, although some gains in the pace of establishment of heavy industries, access to basic health care, and education were registered. China doubled its pace of economic growth by later transitioning from the Maoist take on the Soviet economy to more market-friendly institutions that yielded both the most dramatic rates of economic growth, the most rapid rates of elimination of poverty, and the most rapid increases in inequality in world history. It went from having one of the most equal distributions of income in the world, circa 1980, to one somewhat more unequal than the U.S., which leads advanced industrial democracies for inequality.
It would be easy, these days, to adopt the extreme premise implied by the title of Scheidel’s book: the only ways of reducing inequality in a complex economy entail mass death and destruction, so all relevant cures for inequality are worse than the disease itself. The moderate paths charted by U.S. Rooseveltian Democrats and European Social Democrats now totter on the edge of unsustainability, with anti-immigrant populists having convinced large numbers of middle and working class citizens that business oligarchs are their only refuge.
Egalitarians might have to look elsewhere for future gains, such as in a second wave of democracies—Taiwan, S. Korea, Chile?—where the value of the ballot box and of voter control over government spending and taxation are still appreciated because they were relatively recently achieved. But the moderation of inequality without violence or plague might still have a future in the West.
It would take only a few thousand additional voters unhappy with current trends and residing in politically contestable districts to prove Marx, Mao, and Scheidel wrong and show democracy can, contrary to dogmatic Marxists and pessimists, tame the extremes of inequality without violence.
*For instance, Nico Voigtlander and Hans-Joachim Voth, “The Three Horsemen of Riches: Plague, War, and Urbanization in Early Modern Europe,” Review of Economic Studies, 2012.